Essay

Are Open Floor Plans Here to Stay?

by Grace Bonney

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I’ve spent the last 13 years reviewing and publishing thousands of home tours and devouring hours upon hours of design-related programming on television. And while most trends seem to wax and wane over time, there’s been one dominant change over the past decade that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere: open floor plans.

Real estate agents continue to confirm that most young home and apartment buyers are looking primarily for open floor plans (where the main living space, kitchen and dining room are all open to each other) or to create their own when they renovate, but where does that leave the generations of older houses in America that were built when people wanted clearly defined spaces? Will this craving for openness ever be replaced by a desire for privacy again, or do we think this is the way of the future?

Image above: Anna and Austin’s bright open-plan kitchen in Denver.

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Image above: A chic minimal New Zealand home.

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Traci’s bright and airy California home

 

When my parents put their (very traditional colonial Virginia style) house up for sale, one of the very first pieces of feedback they got from potential buyers and agents was that people would love the house, “If they could knock down all these walls downstairs.” I chuckled at the feedback, thinking of Fixer Upper, and realizing how almost every episode starts with a design plan that includes, “Opening up this space and removing all these walls.”

But then I realized, the newest generation of buyers (and renters), seem to all be looking for the same thing: a large open space in the living area where the kitchen, dining room and living room all open up seamlessly to each other.

Having grown up on the east coast in a relatively old home and now living in a much older home, walls were pretty much a given. Living, dining and cooking spaces were usually clearly defined, except for the occasional kitchen opening that let you peek into the dining area.

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Jamie and Mark’s sunny Kansas City home

 

In colder climates, having separate rooms (especially with doors, not just archways separating them) was a practical necessity, too. Being able to close off sections of the house allowed home owners and renters to save on heating costs by only heating areas they used the most.

When it comes to privacy, I remember being very thankful for having separations between rooms so that I could have a quiet moment to read, do homework or just be alone. But these days the feedback we see here at Design*Sponge (and echoed on most interior design TV shows) is that families, especially those with children, want wide open space to ensure that they can keep an eye on their kids at all times.

One of the most common things I hear on design shows these days is a parent telling a designer that they’d like to be able to see what their kids are doing in the living room while they’re preparing a meal in the kitchen. That’s a concept and a request I completely understand — although part of me wonders where people go (other than their bedrooms) for a quiet moment alone when there are no walls or room dividers to provide that?

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Kelsey’s open-concept Seattle apartment

 

So it made me wonder how you all feel: do you like this groundswell movement toward open floor plans and eschewing privacy in primary living spaces?

For me, I see this as something much bigger than a trend. This feels like a major change that is set to dominate the way we see homes for a long time. And while I love the bright, natural light and airy feeling that these designs offer, I do miss some of the privacy that defined rooms provide. And, as someone who loves homes built in the 18th and 19th centuries, where does this leave the incredible community of homes that have been lovingly cared for, walls and all? Perhaps there will always be enough people to support a multi-room design and keep these house styles in creation and preservation? Or I wonder if we’ll look back on this moment in time, 30 years from now, and realize this was the tipping point where open floor plans changed the way houses were designed going forward. I’m so curious to hear about your thoughts on this change: what makes you love this style or what makes you enjoy having separate rooms? Do you think this will be the way of the future? Does it represent a more affordable way of designing houses? Or will this be another style trend that gradually evens out with a combination of more open space but still a bit of division between rooms?

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Comments

  • An open floor plan keeps me honest about cleaning up the kitchen.

    Seriously, that’s the thing about open floor plans I really don’t like — looking at a messy or cluttered kitchen from the dining and living areas. So I just arrange my furniture into groupings of the best views, indoors and out.

    And this has reminded me that when I had a separate kitchen, even though it was small, everyone squeezed into it during parties, so open floor plans are a more social design.

    It’s very interesting to learn how these designs have evolved with the changing or different circumstances of people’s lives — having cooks vs cooking for yourself, living in a cold vs warm climate, etc.

    Thanks for picking such a lively topic for discussion!

  • Especially for smaller families, couples and singles, open plan is a practical and attractive way of living. As downsizing gains velocity, so too will all-in-one spaces replacing rooms. We’re bound to lose some historic and vintage interiors as walls come down, and future gens may get busy putting rooms back together.

    But while the open plan trend is on the upsurge, there are cliches I hope will be replaced with new designs. Islands, elevated bar seating, and multiple pendant lights dominating from above feel like mindless auto-choices, already so yesterday. Rethink where families eat … a bar with stools alongside the dining table with chairs is like putting a cot next to the bed.

  • Home design has always been a reflection of how we live. In addition to practical things like heating and cooling, older homes with closes spaces also reflect spheres of influence. As we’ve moved into a way of life that is more open and collaborative, ie. cooking with friends, men and women sharing time in the kitchen, etc, we want our homes to support it. Open floor plans are here until we live differently and need our homes to support whatever that wave of living is. Great topic for thought! Thank you!

  • I live in a 1910 house in Oakland, CA and love my separate rooms! I think the key is having a breakfast room attached to the kitchen so the little people and the cooks can all be in the same room. As the kids have gotten older, I appreciate having distinctive spaces even more, both when they have friends over and when we just want to do different things (and at different noise levels).

    Other benefits to having walls and rooms: Your living room doesn’t smell like fried chicken. You don’t have your dishes guilt-tripping you while you’re trying to watch TV. No crumbs in your couch. You don’t stare at your TV or computer while eating dinner.

  • There is a new study out that suggests Generation Z (1995 – 2012) prefers to work alone and be alone differing from the the two previous generations (Gen X and millennials) who prefer a more collaborative environment. Maybe this will be reflective in future home designs reverting back to the traditional….

  • No, no, no! I can’t stand the totally open concept! Every open house I go to in a recently slipped house looks the same. I can live with an open living/dining room design, but please, leave the kitchen in a separate room. I try to clean up as I cook, but it’s not always possible. I don’t feel cut off from guests, because if they want to talk to me while I’m in the kitchen, they come there! I’ve seen too many flipped houses, built in the 20s/30s/40s stripped of distinctive details when all the walls are taken down. No personality. And why the need to keep an eye on children every nanosecond?

  • Great article, I love the concept of open planned, but I also think we need some additional rooms to escape too.
    Therefore, we’re currently extending our home an extra 50sqmtrs to incorporate an open planned kitchen and living sun drenched room 91Sqmtrs total, whilst still maintain a separate and formal dinning and lounge room.
    This way if you wish to escape the noise, read or watch the TV or a movie without competing with everyone else in the house you can.

    As children grow, they will also wish for some living space other than their bedrooms to escape too, to be alone or with friends. Ask yourself would you be comfortable with all their friends socialising together in your sons or daughters bedrooms. So having a separate open planed kitchen living area and formal lounge and dinning rooms work where there’s room to escape . I believe this is the best solution for both worlds, working for a young family and continuing to work as the family grows that requires some separation.

  • I live in an open plan now. But there are times I wish my kitchen is closed up. There’s so much cleaning to do after a cookout!

  • I live in an open concept home and am not a fan. Open concept has resulted in kitchens needing a butler’s pantry to hide messes and bedrooms having sitting areas so we can get separation. An old fashioned eat in kitchen provided communal living space and the other rooms gave us space to ourselves. Bring back the walls.

  • I think the open concept is very attractive, visual and I love how it feels, but in a practical way, I think you need to be extremely clean and organized, or your home will be a mess. So I prefer walls maybe with big windows to catch the light and try to merge small rooms to have more space in each, if it is possible.
    Great article :)))

  • I love that you asked this question. I love the privacy and mystery of homes that unfold before you as you proceed through foyers and doorways, from living room to dining room, to kitchen. A house with separate rooms draws you in and begs to be explored, like the old Professor’s house in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Open-concept homes hold no mystery; a step inside the front door reveals all there is to see, and I find it boring. Individual rooms with walls and doors can hold their own individual vibe. Open-concept, multi-purpose caverns have a factory-like utility to me. Plus, I am a lover of corridors; life is complicated. Without a corridor, or receiving area, where in an open-concept house is there a place to prepare a face to meet the faces that you’ll meet? Where do guests wander with their drinks if every party is held in one room? Where can one steal a kiss out of sight of the children, or your parents? Where can one just read a book or think deep thoughts in solitude?

  • I can’t stand open floorplans. In an apartment, OK- space-saving but in a large house, why would you want an open plan? Kitchens are hard to keep clean and neat, especially before a big party; after a dinner party, you sit around looking at the mess in the kitchen. I value my independence and feel that all family members should have it. I don’t want to have to hide in my bedroom to avoid the sound of my husband on his nightly family phone calls. I’ve also read that open floor plans, with the kitchen always in view, encourage constant snacking and contribute to our increased girth. No thanks! They look gorgeous in the pictures but rarely look that way in real life.

  • From the discussion so far, both home layouts are equally appealing, as they meet the specific needs of those living in the house. As Shannon said, an open plan design has emerged to accommodate changes in the way some of us live but clearly, not all of us. Many respondents continue to prefer a more traditional layout! Hopefully, BOTH floor plans, in addition to blended variations of the two, will prevail.

    For two adults without children, an open plan can work very well, especially when the house is small (ours is 1200 square feet). Our open plan (LR, DR, Kitchen sharing one space) is balanced with the privacy afforded by a separate bedroom (with window seat) and the chance to retreat to our screened porch outside. I do miss an entry foyer and “the privacy and mystery” of a home with yet undiscovered rooms, to which Christy referred. You do relinquish privacy and the opportunity to create spaces with separate personalities with an open plan.

    What I love about our open plan, though, is I can enjoy the fire in the fireplace across the room while I’m chopping vegetables, and listen to friends’ conversation around the fire while I’m setting the table for dinner. I also like the flow in our open plan, the feeling of spaciousness, and the (sweeping) visual connection with the outdoors. And especially, the way the light changes in that biggish space throughout the day and through each season. If our particular open space were divided into two rooms, the magic would disappear.

    Thank you for writing about this timely topic and inviting reflections from your followers. And thank you for Design Sponge. In addition to the rich content and beautiful spaces, everything you write, Grace, is infused with kindness and “heart”.

    Kris

  • Though I live in and love my open concept 90’s house, I remember., back in the 70’s, when mid century modern was NOT fashionable. Now it is, but style is fickle & will inevitably change. To what, who knows?

  • Thank you for taking on this topic! I’m glad to see open concept being treated as an open question. Honestly, I’m so tired of open floor plans being the default, and I hate seeing them presented (by HGTV and real estate gurus) as the sole option in updating a home or as the supreme ideal. I don’t consider myself an old-fashioned person, but I like a separate space for dining and have always wanted a “formal” (though not formal in style) dining room. I don’t understand the point of having a huge, blown-up kitchen and then a having a tiny area for eating, as if the table is an afterthought. I like the feel of cozy, enclosed spaces and the intimacy they can bring… not the intimacy of a TV blaring from the living room into the kitchen. There’s also something to be said about being able to make a mess in the kitchen without the pressure of cleaning it up before everyone sees it. I could go on….

  • I hate hate hate open plan kitchens and will never have one. My current coop apartment (built in 1960) happily has a CLOSED KITCHEN. But I must admit when it came time to sell my last house–an1885 Victorian in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, the one complaint that came from most of the potential buyers was…the kitchen was a separate room. (They didn’t care much for the formal dining room either, although I had enjoyed it for social and business entertaining.) Some barbarians even suggested moving the kitchen to the dining room and doing away with a separate eating area (except at the bar). If I want to eat at a bar I will go to a tavern and order a meal. I consider eating at a bar in a private home (except possibly for a snack or breakfast) beyond the pale.
    But I do have the feeling that I am losing the battle. On the other hand, maybe in 30 years there will be a whole new trend to restore walls to houses where they no longer exist (or never existed).

  • I really enjoy listening to music while cooking, baking and cleaning up. My family doesn’t necessarily share my taste in music, nor do I want to hear my kids’ annoying tv shows. The open plan does not work for me.

  • We built our home 21 years ago with an open floor plan and I absolutely love it. This is coming from someone who is an introvert and recharges by being alone. We are fortunate to have an additional TV-free living room that is somewhat separated from the main open space. I’ve noticed recently in some home tours in our area that builders are incorporating smaller/cozy spaces adjacent to the larger open areas. Maybe the perfect combo? I love the volume, space, and light that an open plan creates. I live in Minnesota where we have long winters and not feeling claustrophobic in my home is a lifesaver!

  • An open floor plan can be done well, but in older houses and newer houses with a more traditional style, I think rooms should be distinct, but still have large openings (connections) and a clear line of sight. It pains me when I see older homes that have been “opened up” and there is no attempt to preserve any of the original flow or layout. Several terrible things happen: you end up with windows and fireplaces that seem to have no logical relationship to the geometry of the room, you lose beautiful original millwork, and (ironically) eliminating thresholds can make a space appear much smaller. By all means, widen the openings between rooms if it makes the house more livable, but try to maintain the integrity of the house as well.

  • I live in an apartment with an open-concept floor plan right now, and it’s beautiful, but there is no privacy and it looks like a whirlwind hit it if everything isn’t perfectly neat and in its place. If I had a three-story house, I can see having an open main floor and then more clearly delineated spaces upstairs and in a basement, but if I move into another small space, I’d like some walls.

  • As an introvert, I really appreciate having separate spaces to retreat to. The open concept is great for those who want it, but I do wish that builders would take into account the fact that people/families come in a variety of configurations and have different needs. While I understand they need to cater to the lowest common denominator, there should still be room to offer layouts that are smaller in square footage or that aren’t quite as open.

  • I second Jessica: “An open floor plan can be done well, but in older houses and newer houses with a more traditional style, I think rooms should be distinct, but still have large openings (connections) and a clear line of sight.” Amen.

    I have problems with open floor plans both from a practical-use stand point as many have pointed out (from keeping everything tidy to having some privacy and escape from the noise from others in your household), and also from an aesthetic perspective.

    I’ve only liked open floor plans when the design was truly modern, and few contemporary homes with open floor plans have that modern design aesthetic, which often still created separate spaces, if only visually. Instead, most home builders haphazardly combine traditional and modern elements with little thought of the overall aesthetic.

    And don’t get me started on the vaulted ceilings in contemporary homes with open floor plans. I rarely see one that isn’t repulsive from a design point of view. The balance and scale are always off. The planes created by the walls and ceilings intersect without any thought for how it might look. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

    For hundreds of years until sometime in the 1960’s, the average home was aesthetically pleasing. And then we went off the rails and are still recovering.

    The other times I’ve seen the open-space concept work was in large homes where the kitchen-dining-living room combo was just one of many public living spaces, and there were also a separate dining room, living room, study/library, entry way, etc. But I’m not sure if this is really an open-space or just a big house with a big kitchen that has room for couches and a tv.

  • We live in Eastern Pennsylvania and built a Traditional style home 19 years ago which has a semi-open floor plan. There are walls dividing the living and dining rooms but the openings are extremely wide, and the rest of the area is open so there is no quiet space on the main floor. We didn’t realize how noisy the downstairs would be! Our living room is now in the process of being divided into two rooms by a “soundproof” wall. There will be pocket doors which can be closed dividing the two spaces. The smaller room will house two comfortable chairs with a coffee table between, and a small desk and chair. It will be nice and cozy. The larger space will still serve as an open living room. I am thrilled. If I want to read, write, do bills, have a long telephone conversation or just have a little privacy I can do so while the TV, or other noisy activity is going on on that level. Peace at last without having to retreat upstairs to the bedroom! In addition, I don’t know if those buying the now popular tiny homes realize how little privacy or quiet they will have while living with others in the home. I can’t even imagine how that alone won’t drive them crazy!!!

  • Open plans can be attractive and may work for some. A house with good flow is what I prefer. I live in an 1888 Victorian stone farmhouse in Bucks County, PA, and there is a good flow through the house. This was achieved by removing built in bookcases (don’t worry; we use all of them in different places around the house) and adding an opening to the family room. There is no island or bar, but there is a kitchen with a big, expandable table and a fireplace. Clockwise from the kitchen in a circular path is the dining room (with a door to a garage roof porch), the entrance hall which leads to the living room and front stairs (and to the enclosed wrap around porch), a passage to the office, with powder room and access to same wrap around porch. Swinging back up towards 12 o’clock, there is a family room with fireplace that has openings at the foyer and back to the kitchen,
    We’ve entertained anywhere from one to over 75 people pretty comfortably (other than having a ridiculous number of people in the house).
    The rooms are large but still cozy, and while the house really is bigger than necessary, it’s very comfortable to live in.
    I like having places to go throughout the house to read or do whatever without having to go upstairs to the study or my bedroom.
    Perhaps other people live differently?

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